What does a crow-sized water bird with a bright red face have in common with a heron-sized bird with a white face? Throw in a tiny, chatty bird living only on the west coast, as well as several other highly diverse bird species that are finding themselves in Canadian air space much more often than a few decades ago, and you have uncovered but a few of the major changes that grace the pages of the second edition of Birds of Canada!
You see, publishing an all-inclusive, up-to-date reference book or field guide on the bird species that are found in any delineated geographical entity, such as a country like Canada, is a constantly evolving chore. With never-ending new data on morphology and behaviour coupled with rapidly changing molecular technology and innovative Citizen Science programs like eBird, taxonomists are incessantly making alterations to the official list of the birds of the world. But that’s not the whole story.
Changing weather patterns are causing more and more bird species to shift their breeding and wintering ranges further north, and extreme weather conditions like hurricanes and tropical storms are blowing more and more birds across entire continents and oceans, leading to newly established populations in regions where they did not exist before. So, if birders and ornithologists want to have the latest and correct information at their fingertips, that means putting new editions of reference books and field guides on their library shelves every few years or so.
The White-faced Ibis, with its long legs, matching decurved beak, and metallic bronze plumage, gets its name from the breeding adult’s distinctive white feathers along the edge of its bare facial skin. Widespread throughout the U.S. and Mexico, it is now found in the southern parts of all Canadian provinces, except for Newfoundland – for now! Heavy rainfall and flooding leads to freshly created marshes as well as irrigated land, which comprise this ibis’s favourite habitat. Judging by the weather reports in recent years, there appears to be no shortage of places for this bird to feed and breed.
Another water-loving species with a distinctive face, the Common Gallinule has always resided on Canadian soil, but under another name – the Common Moorhen, a name given to its Eurasian counterpart. But research on its vocalizations, the morphology of the beak and facial shield, and its mitochondrial DNA has convinced taxonomists to separate the North American bird from its Eurasian cousin and give it back its old name, the Common Gallinule. Mostly found in southeastern Canada, the breeding adult male is strikingly beautiful with its red and yellow face and beak, shiny slate-grey body, and greenish-yellow legs. Often frequenting small ponds in urban and agricultural habitats, they can also be readily identified by the nervous jerking of their short tails and the back-and-forth bobbing of their heads.
A third new species in this second edition of Birds of Canada is the Pacific Wren. Like the gallinule, it did not suddenly appear in Canada but has always resided here in the moist, thick tangled undergrowth in large tracts of old-growth spruce and fir forests in British Columbia. Until recently, the Pacific Wren was lumped in with the Winter Wren and the Eurasian Wren as a single species, but extensive research shows that even though the three birds look alike, at least to most birders, there are considerable differences in both plumage and physical traits. More importantly, given the sharp contrast in their vocalizations, a taxonomic case was made to treat the Pacific Wren as a species in its own right. Birders will likely hear a Pacific Wren before seeing it; the species has one of the most complex and vibrant singing abilities of all North American birds. They are highly territorial and quite feisty and thus, they readily respond to “pishing” sounds by momentarily popping out of the vegetation.
There are many more subtle changes to this new edition. Several species have been elevated from the Vagrants list to the status of Rare Species. Laysan Albatrosses and Short-tailed Shearwaters are being spotted more often by birders on off-shore excursions in British Columbia waters, and two wader species – the Snowy Egret and Little Blue Heron – are showing up on many birding lists in the southern parts of all ten Canadian provinces.
Of notable interest is the elevation of the highly endangered Kirtland’s Warbler into this section; this bird’s breeding population has increased considerably in recent years from a low of 400 birds to well over 4,000 in 2012, largely due to a controversial hands-on management program consisting of parasitic cowbird control. It is not surprising that the population is slowly expanding into Ontario and Quebec. The Black Vulture has also made it to the Rare Bird list for Canada, although its habit of killing newborn lambs will not endear it to Canadian sheep farmers!
Finally, sharp-eyed readers may also detect a fair amount of changing Latin names for some birds, and more significantly, the shifting of complete groups of birds, all due to the science-based decisions of avian taxonomists. The one that shocks me the most is the transfer of my beloved falcons from the Hawks, Eagles, Vultures and Relatives to somewhere between the Woodpeckers and the Old World Flycatchers. I am not sure that I will be able to forgive that change, but who knows – they might end up being back in their original place in the Third Edition of Birds of Canada!
David M. Bird is Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Biology and former Director of the Avian Science and Conservation Centre at McGill University. As a past president of the Society of Canadian Ornithologists, a director with Bird Studies Canada, and a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union, he has received several awards for his conservation and education efforts. Dr. Bird is a regular columnist for both Bird Watcher’s Digest and Canadian Wildlife and is the author of several books and over 200 scientific publications. He is the consultant editor for DK’s Birds of Canada, Birds of Eastern Canada, Birds of Western Canada, and Pocket Birds of Canada. Visit his website at askprofessorbird.com.